Hollywood Awards Transgender Portrayals in Film

Actor Hilary Swank won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her portrayal of transgender Brandon Teena in the film Boys Don’t Cry, and Pedro Almodóvar’s film All About My Mother, in which several complex transgender characters are featured, won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. The awards mark the first formal, mainstream recognition of the significance and import of transgender and gender-ambiguous characters in film.

Summary of Event

While the use of gender impersonation or ambiguity as a plot device has been used in film since the inception of motion pictures, the inclusion of fully developed characters who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, and (especially) transgender is a late twentieth century phenomenon. A watershed year for depictions of transgender characters and themes was 2000, when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awarded (on March 21) Oscars Academy Awards;Hillary Swank[Swank] to Hilary Swank Gender-bending[gender bending];in film[film] for her portrayal of Brandon Teena in Boys Don’t Cry (1999) and to film maker Pedro Almodóvar Academy Awards;Pedro Almodóvar[Almodovar] for his Todo sobre mi madre (1999; All About My Mother) as Best Foreign Language Film. [kw]Hollywood Awards Transgender Portrayals in Film (Mar. 21, 2000)
[kw]Transgender Portrayals in Film, Hollywood Awards (Mar. 21, 2000)
[kw]Film, Hollywood Awards Transgender Portrayals in (Mar. 21, 2000)
Film;transgender characters
Gender;and film[film]
Transgender/transsexuality[transgender transsexuality];in film[film]
[c]Transgender/transsexuality;Mar. 21, 2000: Hollywood Awards Transgender Portrayals in Film[2560]
[c]Arts;Mar. 21, 2000: Hollywood Awards Transgender Portrayals in Film[2560]
[c]Cultural and intellectual history;Mar. 21, 2000: Hollywood Awards Transgender Portrayals in Film[2560]
[c]Organizations and institutions;Mar. 21, 2000: Hollywood Awards Transgender Portrayals in Film[2560]
Swank, Hilary
Almodóvar, Pedro

Poster for Boys Don’t Cry (1999).

As the rise of hate crimes Gender-based violence[gender based violence] against transgender individuals can attest, however, these awards were not necessarily a sign of widespread public support toward people who choose to define gender on their own terms. Rather, the recognition indicated the increasing amount of discourse surrounding the collective fears, desires, and questions about gender and sexuality.


According to film scholar Rebecca Bell-Metereau, more than two hundred films employ gender “illusion” as a key plot element or a focus of a critical scene. Decades before Dustin Hoffman took on the role of Tootsie (1982), Charlie Chaplin Chaplin, Charlie played an out of work actor who disguises himself as a woman in The Masquerader (1914) to get work as an actress. A number of early actors used humor as the context for men dressing as women: Chaplin, who cross-dressed again in A Woman (1915); Fatty Arbuckle (The Minstrel Man, 1915; Miss Fatty’s Seaside Lovers, 1915; Miss Fatty in Coney Island, 1917); Wallace Beery in the successful “Sweedie” series (1914-1916); and the numerous creators of the matron character (Charley’s Aunt and Old Mother Riley). Most early filmic depictions of women dressing as men, however, more often than not show the female character punished for her audacity in claiming male privilege.

While film continued the stage convention of having adult women play boys and young male characters—Hamlet, Peter Pan, The Prince and Pauper, Oliver Twist, Little Lord Faunteroy—male impersonators on the screen usually don pants to get out of a scrape (Mary Pickford in Poor Little Peppina, 1915; Louise Brooks in The Beggars of Life, 1928; Gertrude Michael in The Return of Sophie Lang, 1936) or to commit a crime (Mae Murray in Danger, Go Slow, 1918; Gloria Swanson in The Humming Bird, 1924; Signe Hasso in The House on 92nd Street, 1945).

The Florida Enchantment (1914) and The Amazons (1917) brought the British Music Hall tradition of women in male tailored tuxedos Gender-bending[gender bending];and masculine attire[masculine attire] to the screen, which found its apex in Morocco (1930) with Marlene Dietrich Dietrich, Marlene and Zouzou with Josephine Baker Baker, Josephine (1934). Greta Garbo Garbo, Greta in Queen Christina (1933) and Katharine Hepburn Hepburn, Katharine in Sylvia Scarlett (1935) contributed to the national dialogue concerning the culturally restrictive role placed on women, but self-censorship motivated by the Motion Picture Production Code in the 1930’s meant that the screen depiction of gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgender characters for the next thirty years resorted to shop-worn stereotypes, innuendo, and the demonization of those who challenged heteronormativity and gender binaries.

With the women’s movement and the so-called sexual revolution, male impersonation virtually disappeared from film, as “women in pants” were no longer novelties. The gradual societal shift in the status of women also suggested that to be upwardly mobile, women no longer had to be men (or look like men), even though they still needed “masculine” attributes, such as aggressiveness and assertiveness, power, and boldness. Since the 1970’s, most films featuring male impersonators have been period pieces: Victor/Victoria (1982), Yentl (1983), and Orlando (1993). Nia Vardalos added a twist to the genre with Connie and Carla (2004), where two women hide out from mobsters by pretending to be gay men who perform as drag queens. Drag queens/kings[drag queens kings];representations of in film[film]

The 1960’s ushered in a wide range of female impersonation, including portraits of cross-dressing as part of gay and lesbian culture (Outrageous, 1977; Torch Song Trilogy, 1988; Paris Is Burning, 1991) and films featuring transsexual characters (The Christine Jorgensen Story, 1970; I Want What I Want, 1972; The World According to Garp, 1982). High camp found its way to the silver screen with Myra Breckinridge (1970), The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994), To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar (1995), with “Divine” in numerous John Waters films, and the “gender-bending” of Tim Curry in The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975). Several films have explored the “Tiresias effect,” where one person has the experience of living in both a male and female body (Goodbye, Charlie, 1964; All of Me, 1984; Switch, 1991; The Hot Chick, 2002).

The use of cross-dressing as low farce has continued into the twenty-first century, with films including The Nutty Professor (1996), Juwanna Mann (2002), Sorority Boys (2002), and She’s the Man (2006). Keenen Ivory Wayans and Shawn Wayans complicated the discussion of the use of drag in film with race when they played two African American FBI agents who impersonate two Caucasian women in White Chicks (2004). The many accusations of racism over the film’s use of whiteface seemingly were not of concern twenty years earlier when Linda Hunt won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal of photographer Billy Kwan in The Year of Living Dangerously (1982).

Despite the proliferation of explorations of gender illusion in film in the later part of the century, most depictions tend to be negative: The cross-dresser is often killed or commits suicide—Frebbie and the Bean (1974); In a Year of 14 Moons (1979); Boys Don’t Cry—or is a psychotic killer: Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960); Dressed to Kill (1980); Silence of the Lambs (1991). Even in those films that present the transgender individual in a more sympathetic light–Come Back to the Five and Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (1982); Kiss of the Spider Woman (1985); The Adventures of Sebastian Cole (1998); Flawless (1999)—the cinematic narrative is more concerned with the main (gender-conforming heterosexual) character’s journey. With the exception of La Cage aux Folles (1979)—which spawned two sequels, including a stage musical and an American remake (The Birdcage, 1996)—and Transamerica (2005), which garnered for Felicity Huffman a Golden Globe Award for Best Actress as well as a best actress Oscar nomination, most commercially successful drag movies preserve the heterosexuality of their cross-dressing characters: Some Like It Hot (1959), Tootsie (1982), and Mrs. Doubtfire (1993).

Ever since Glen or Glenda? (1954), Hollywood’s depiction of transgender lives rarely has moved beyond cheap comedy, surface titillation, or melodramatic shock. Neil Jordan’s The Crying Game (1992) is a notable exception, as the character “Dil” challenges other characters (and the audience’s) ability to categorize her sexuality, gender, race, and nationality. Similarly, most of the films of Pedro Almodóvar contain characters who have crafted integrated lives that confound conventional expectations of gender and sexuality. Indeed, the most nuanced films about alternate-gendered lives come not from Hollywood but from world cinema: Ma Vie en Rose (Spain, 1997); Madame Satá (Brazil, 2003); Lola and Billy the Kid (Germany, 1999); Beautiful Boxer (Thailand, 2004); and Osama (Afghanistan, 2004). Also of note, the First International Transgender Film and Video Festival was held in London in 1997.

In many ways the voyeurism of watching film is the perfect medium to explore presentations and re-presentations of gender. Through camera angles, lighting, costume, and makeup, film is able to control the physical body to a certain degree, collaborating with the character to present their self to the world. Film;transgender characters
Gender;and film[film]
Transgender/transsexuality[transgender transsexuality];in film[film]

Further Reading

  • Baker, Roger. Drag: A History of Female Impersonation in the Performing Arts. New York: New York University Press, 1994.
  • Bell-Metereau, Rebecca. Hollywood Androgyny. 2d ed. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.
  • Bruzzi, Stella. Undressing Cinema: Clothing and Identity in the Movies. New York: Routledge, 1997.
  • Dickens, Homer. What a Drag: Men as Women and Women as Men in the Movies. New York: Quill, 1984.
  • Hadleigh, Boze. The Lavender Screen: The Gay and Lesbian Films, Their Stars, Makers, Characters, and Critics. Secaucus, N.J.: Carol, 1993.
  • McLellan, Diana. The Girls: Sappho Goes to Hollywood. New York: LA Weekly Books, 2000.
  • Russo, Vitto. The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies. Rev. ed. New York: Harper & Row, 1987.
  • Sánchez, María Carla, and Linda Schlossberg, eds. Passing: Identity and Interpretation in Sexuality, Race, and Religion. New York: New York University Press, 2001.
  • Straayer, Chris. Deviant Eyes, Deviant Bodies: Sexual Re-Orientation in Film and Video. New York: Columbia University Press, 1996.

1929: Pandora’s Box Opens

1930’s-1960’s: Hollywood Bans “Sexual Perversion” in Films

1985: Lesbian Film Desert Hearts Is Released

1988: Macho Dancer Is Released in the Philippines

1990, 1994: Coming Out Under Fire Documents Gay and Lesbian Military Veterans

1992-2002: Celebrity Lesbians Come Out

1993: The Wedding Banquet Is First Acclaimed Taiwanese Gay-Themed Film

December 24, 1993-December 31, 1993: Transgender Man Brandon Teena Raped and Murdered

December 3, 1998-February 25, 1999: Screening of Fire Ignites Violent Protests in India

March 5, 2006: Brokeback Mountain, Capote, and Transamerica Receive Oscars